Standing Stones and Christmas Trees

by Lois Tverberg

You shall not set up for yourself a sacred pillar which the LORD your God hates. – Deuteronomy 16:22

At Gezer we saw a group of ancient standing stones (matzebot in Hebrew) that date from 1500 BC, when the Canaanites were in the land of Israel. In theory, they shouldn’t still be standing, because Israelites were given instructions to destroy all of the pagan standing stones in Israel (Deut. 12:3). But Gezer was a very strategic city and only rarely were Israelite kings in control of it (Judges 1:29, 1 Kings 9:16), so during very little of Israel’s ancient history could they have knocked down the stones of Gezer.


The standing stones there were part of the ancient practice of setting up stone pillars at pagan worship sites. The practice dates from at least 5000 BC, and many sacred stone sites from 3000 BC and older can still be found in the Negev and Sinai desert, as well as around Europe and elsewhere. They often seemed to be involved in worship of heavenly bodies.

Interestingly, Jacob uses this practice when he erects a stone, anoints it, dedicates it to God and calls it Bethel, where he had the vision of the heavenly staircase (Genesis 28:18-28). Later, when the Israelites cross the Jordan, God commands them to set up twelve stones to be a memorial to the great miracle God did there. The text says,

“When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, `What are these stones?’ then you shall inform your children, saying, `Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.’ “For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as the LORD your God had done to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed; that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” (Joshua 4:21-24)

It is ironic that God could use the same practice usually meant for idolatry to show his glory to the world, so that through the generations people would stop and remember what God did there. Otherwise, God forbade standing stones when he said, “You shall not set up for yourself a sacred pillar, which the LORD your God hates” (Deuteronomy 16:22). The difference was the motivation – whether the stones were set up to point people toward God, or to worship idols.

A related example is the bronze serpent God commanded to be made in the wilderness. The people who had been bitten by the snakes who looked at it in faith would live (Numbers 21:9). But later in their history, the same symbol that had helped people have faith in God had become an idol, so it had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4). The fact that God created it didn’t sanctify it when it was being misused. Once again, the motivation of the people, not the origins, determined whether a thing was idolatrous or God-honoring.

These biblical examples can give us wisdom about the holidays of Christmas and Easter. These holidays began as Christians decided to worship the true God on days when pagan gods used to be worshipped. Some of the traditions (like the Christmas tree and the Easter egg) once had pagan meanings that are now lost as they have become Christian celebrations. Should we avoid these observances?

There are some people who have rejected these celebrations entirely because of their origins. But it seems that the critical thing is not what their origins are, but whether we are worshipping the one true God. To most Christians, these holidays glorify God like the standing stones by the Jordan did — they are a continual reminder of the wonderful thing God has done by sending the promised Messiah, who saved us by suffering and dying for our sins.

Repainting DaVinci, Again

by Lois Tverberg

You are those who have stood by Me in My trials; and just as My Father has granted Me a kingdom, I grant you that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. – Luke 22:28-29

On our recent trip to Israel, we learned much of the latest thinking in archaeology. One picture that changed for us was that of the Last Supper. Many of us already know that DaVinci’s picture of the Last Supper is quite far from reality – that the disciples didn’t sit in chairs at a long table, eating fish for the Passover meal that required lamb and unleavened bread (See the related director’s article). It has been thought that they may have reclined at low seats around a U-shaped table, called a triclinium.


Scholars now suggest that no tables were present at all in the room! Instead, people reclined on the floor, and platters of food were placed on mats in the middle of each group. While platters are found commonly in excavations, tables are rare, and only in the homes of the very wealthy. Also, the word “table” isn’t present in the Greek text in the descriptions of Jesus reclining and eating – every time the gospels say that Jesus reclined, the phrase “at the table” is inserted in English where it isn’t present in Greek (almost 20 times in the NASB!) Apparently common people ate on the ground, as bedouins and some Africans do even today.

It is very interesting to look at where dining at tables occurs in the Bible. In the Old Testament, it is almost exclusively in royal palaces. David dined at King Saul’s table (I Sam. 20:29) and when he was king, he invited Mephibosheth, Saul’s grandson to sit at his table (2 Sam. 9:7). A dining table seems to be associated with royalty. It sometimes is a metaphor to mean to have a close relationship with a ruler, as when it speaks of “400 prophets of Asherah who eat at the table of Jezebel” (1 Kings 19:18) Sometimes, however, “table” is used metaphorically – as in Psalm 78:19, when the Israelites say, “Can the Lord prepare a table in the wilderness?” Here it is talking about God providing food for his people, and no physical table is involved at all.

If dining at tables is understood to be an activity of nobility, it sheds light on sayings in the gospels where a table (trapeza, in Greek) is actually mentioned in the Greek text. When Jesus initially refuses to heal the woman’s son, the woman says, “But even the dogs feed on the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matt 15:27). It sounds like she is comparing Jesus to a wealthy, royal man with a great feast-laden table, to herself, an insignificant little dog scrounging for a tiny crumb. The contrast makes her saying more powerful.

And now we have a better sense of what Jesus means when he speaks of “my table” in the passage above. He is pointing forward to his royal table in heaven, when he has taken on his full glory. There we will have communion and abundant fellowship with him and each other, dining at the table of the King of Kings.

Elijah, God’s Strong Man

by Bruce Okkema

O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.  – 1 Kings 18:36-37

Approximately 60 years after the death of King Solomon, Ahab was reigning king of the northern kingdom. Solomon’s sons, Rehoboam and Jeroboam, had split the kingdom in two. In the interest of forming a political alliance with the Canaanites of his area, Ahab married Jezebel, daughter of the king of Phoenicia. Jezebel was a priestess of the god of Baal and his cohort, Asherah. When she came to live in the palace, she brought with her 450 prophets of Baal and 400 of Asherah and, through Ahab, she established her religion as the national religion of Israel. She tried to kill all of the prophets of the Lord. The scripture says:

There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife. (I Kings 21:25)  (Please read the entire account in 1 Kings 16-19 to get a sense for the contrasting experiences pictured above.)

The scene is Mt. Carmel, the highest place of Baal worship. Baal was the god of the storm, thunder, lighting, and rain; Baal and Asherah together were considered the gods of fertility. For Elijah to proclaim the withholding of dew and rain was to declare Baal impotent and powerless. This infuriated Ahab and Jezebel to the extent that Elijah had to go into hiding for his own preservation. When the Lord called Elijah again to confront Ahab, he chose to give the prophets of Baal every advantage – the site being Baal’s own place of worship and the method being his own “fire from heaven.”

After a whole day of chanting, self-mutilation, and Satanic ritual, it was time for the prophets of Baal to turn the stage over to Elijah. He prayed to the Lord, and in a word, the true God of Israel, delivered lightning and thunder, he destroyed the prophets of Baal and Asherah, and then he sent rain on the land.

We are surprised to read next that we find Elijah running for his life and he wants to die. He said, “Lord, I have had enough … take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (I Kings 19:4-5). How could this be? He had been miraculously fed by ravens, provided an unending supply of oil and flour in Zarephath, raised a boy from the dead, and now had seen the awesome display of God’s power in the defeat of Baal. Yet he says,

“I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 19:14)

The people of Israel needed to see the lightning bolts, but Elijah needed encouragement. He thought he was serving the Lord all by himself. God met him where he was and sent his angel to comfort him. He then took Elijah to Mt. Sinai to remember his covenant and teach him more about himself. Elijah, we know, eventually passed on his great spirit to Elisha and the Lord took Elijah to himself without passing through death.

Where ever you are serving the Lord, at times you will become discouraged. We naturally expect that our obedience to him will lead to things going well in our lives. Sometimes they will, but more often than not, they will not. The Enemy will always be trying to thwart the purposes of the Lord and to discourage us in the process. The constant battle between the forces of Satan and the forces of God is always around us and we are involved. It is important to share our troubles with the community of believers so we can know each other’s needs and how to pray together for strength and direction. The Lord never allows all of us to be under attack at the same time. When we do share, we find that we don’t have to face our problems alone and there is light at the end of the tunnel that we were unable to see.

Maybe you are in a situation where you are under attack. People are trying to destroy your family, the economy is destroying your business, your money is gone, loneliness is turning your thoughts inward, or maybe people are even trying to kill you for your faithfulness. Hold onto the story of Elijah. God never abandons us. He is always watching over us; when we cry out to him, he hears. He rarely works things out the way we expect him to, but he always does, and when our work on earth is finished, he will take us to himself.


The steep cliffs of Mt. Carmel overlook the Jezreel valley and the plains of Megido.

The Land Up and Down

by Lois Tverberg

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob;
That He may teach us concerning His ways, and that we may walk in His paths.” Isaiah 2:3

For visitors from the flat American midwest, Israel is challenging because of its many hills. To get practically anywhere is to hike up or down. As we studied the Hebrew of the Scripture in the land, we saw that as often as the text said that a person “went” (halakh) somewhere (literally meaning “walked”), it says they “went up” (alah, meaning “ascended”) somewhere, or “went down” (yarad, meaning “decended”) somewhere. The language reflects the topography!

TempleMountSome places in the Bible are almost always associated with going up or going down, partly because of geography, and partly because of their spiritual associations. A person always “goes up” to Jerusalem, because it is on one of the highest mountains in the area. The Temple is at the highest point, to remind worshippers that they are coming near to God.

Every time our bus climbed up the hill into the city, we were reminded of “going up” to Jerusalem. If we would have walked as Jesus did, it would have been even more obvious. Our burning legs would tell us that we must make an effort to enter the presence of God.

Often simply going into the land of Israel is “going up” in the Scriptures, and even today, when a Jewish person moves from another country to Israel, he or she is said to make “aliyah” which means to “go up” or “ascend.” On the other hand, a person almost always “went down” to Egypt. In our thinking, since Egypt is to the south, we would call it “down,” but they didn’t associate the south with “down.” Rather, it is downward because of being outside of the Promised Land, and somewhat also because it was the land where the Hebrews were oppressed.

It is interesting that over the history of Israel, there have been few flat places – it seems that the nation was either ascending or descending spiritually, to worship the true God, or to fall into idolatry or sin. Our spiritual lives are like that too – we tend to be either ascending or descending rather than just on the level. Each day we need to ask ourselves which way our next step will go.

En-Gedi Hiking

More to Gideon’s Story

by Bruce Okkema

“Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised – I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew – a bowlful of water. Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece. This time make the fleece dry and the ground covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew. – Judges 6:36 – 40

Many of us know that using the idiom “putting out your fleece” is a way of saying that a person is testing something. Those who are familiar with the Old Testament will know that the phrase comes from this story in Judges 6. Gideon knew how miraculous such a thing would be, because when there is dew in Israel it is very heavy and it drenches everything (see “The Refreshment of Dew”), yet when it is dry, it is bone dry. For the fleece to have been in the opposite condition as all of its surroundings could only have been so by the hand of God. Amazing as this was, there is much more to the story when we consider the whole context.

The Israelites had fallen into the worship of Baal and Asherah, gods of the peoples around them, and just as the Lord had warned, he had oppressed them for it. The Israelites had to resort to hiding in caves and mountain clefts to survive. They were totally dependent on their crops and animals, but yet for seven years in a row,

Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. (Judges. 6:3–5)

Imagine how terrifying this must have been! It was the Amalekites who had enraged the Lord by attacking the weak, and elderly, and stragglers as the Israelites were exiting Egypt, and they were known for their violence and cruelty. When the people cried to the Lord for mercy, he responded by reminding them of his delivery from their bondage in Egypt.

I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I snatched you from the power of Egypt and from the hand of all your oppressors. I drove them from before you and gave you their land. I said to you, `I am the LORD your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to me.” (Jdg. 6:9-10)

David Morris drinkingThere are so many more lessons one can learn from the land – just in this story! When you read the entire passage, notice all of the imagery intended to remind you of God’s faithfulness in the past, and all that points ahead to his redemption in the future: delivery from Egypt, the angel of the Lord, miraculous signs, a meal, unleavened bread, a rock, a staff, fire, a threshing floor, a wine press, tearing down the altars, sacrifices, shouts, shofars, a dream, and so much more than just a fleece.

It is good to be reminded of how patient, powerful, and faithful our God is. He will defeat the forces of evil whenever he chooses. But contrary to our way of thinking, he does it by using faithful people who may be “slow of speech,” or shepherds, or farmers, or the son of a carpenter. To his glory, he can make mighty warriors out of all of us who may be least in our families and from the weakest of clans (vs. 6:12, 15.)


Two views of the spring of Harod, where Gideon and his men camped. (Judges 7:1)


Please read all of Judges 6 & 7 with an attentive ear and you hear the history of Israel ringing through it.

Drink Before You’re Thirsty

by Lois Tverberg

A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.
“O God, you are my God; I shall seek You earnestly;
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh yearns for you,
in a dry and weary land where there is no water. ” – Psalm 63:1

Many athletes have heard the advice, “Drink before you’re thirsty!” We were told this often on our trip to Israel in July, where we experienced many days around 100° F, and did much walking and hiking. A few who didn’t comply experienced the effects of dehydration – nausea, headache, dizziness, and even a lack of desire to drink, even though their bodies needed fluids badly. A couple people even needed fluids by IV at a local clinic. David’s words about his thirst were very palpable to us when we stood in the bleak Judean wilderness where he wrote this Psalm.

drinking from EnGediDavid was speaking about being thirsty for a sense of the presence of the Lord in his life. We’ve all had this feeling – about having a need for intimacy with God. In our times of prayer, study or worship, we take a “drink” of living water when we sense God’s closeness and his hand leading our lives. When we are in times of stress, or emotional turmoil, we can become spiritually “dehydrated,” and our thirst for God gets much greater.

Interestingly, drinking before you’re thirsty is very wise advice, spiritually too. When we are in a stressful situation that demands our time, often the first thing to go is the time to pray. Even when we do pray, our stressed-out minds have a hard time relaxing and listening for God to speak to us. As a result, we get thirstier and thirstier. We think that God should come closer because we need him, but he seems to feel farther away. Just like water sometimes is even repulsive to a dehydrated person, we can even start avoiding prayer – feeling that God must be so disgusted by our weak commitment that we don’t deserve to pray. We can truly become spiritually ill from lack of “living water.”

True wisdom is to keep drinking a little at a time, before the heat and stress come. We need to keep seeking out the Lord while times are good, before we are desperate. But, no matter how far we have gone from him, we can be assured if we bring him our empty cup, he will fill it with himself.

The Necessity of Shade

by Lois Tverberg

“The LORD is your keeper; The LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun will not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.” Psalm 121:5-6 NASB

Many times in the Psalms, God is referred to as “shade” (tzel in Hebrew), and the Bible speaks of us under the “shadow of his wings” (Psalm 63:7). This image didn’t speak to me powerfully until I experienced the heat and sun of the land of Israel myself, especially in the mountains near Jerusalem.

Qumran ScriptoriumMany days reached nearly 100° F, and near the Dead Sea, it was over 120° F. Clouds are extremely rare in the summer, so nothing protects a person from the power of the sun’s rays. When we stood in the sunshine we could quickly feel our skin burning, but under a tree, the breeze made us quite comfortable. We also sensed the sun’s heat as the temperature rose each day from below 60° F at dawn to almost 100° F by afternoon.

It is interesting to see how in Psalm 121, it speaks of the sun “smiting” us, the same word also translated as “to hit, attack, or strike down.” In ancient times, it was thought that just as the sun was the source of heat that “attacks” us by day, the moon is the source of cold that “attacks” us by night. So when God led his people in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, God was sheltering them from the ever-present enemies of cold and heat in the desert .

We can also see why the image of “shade” is often used to mean protection. For instance, in Numbers 14:9, Joshua reassures the people that the Canaanites will not be able to win against them because their protection (shade, tzel, literally) has been removed from them. Without shade, it is impossible to survive in that land, and if their shade has been removed, they are defenseless.

Now that we have a better understanding of the great need for the cool of shade, we can better appreciate the following psalm, among many others:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Psalm 91:1-2

The “Rock” and the Transfiguration

by Pastor Ed Visser

Jesus: “Who do you say I am?” Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus: “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Matthew 16:15-18

Rock cave at Caesarea PhilNot long before Jesus went to the cross, he gathered his disciples in Caesarea Philippi, an area known for its worship of the pagan god Pan. At an outdoor theater, created in front of a large rock, with a cave they thought entered the underworld (Hades), people worshiped Pan in orgiastic fervor.

“What are we doing here?” Jesus’ disciples must have wondered. But he had an important question for them. In the face of all this blatant paganness, which seemed so strong in their culture, who would they confess that Jesus was? Peter’s response, revealing Jesus as Messiah and God, was stunning, if only for the setting. And Niche for PanJesus’ response also fit the setting. Perhaps gesturing to this rock and cave, he said he would build his church even here, in the midst of pagan culture, and that the “gates of Hades” (the name of this cave, but also denoting Satan’s realm) would not overcome his church.

To understand the impact of this setting on his message: if Jesus were to do this today he might very well take his disciples to Hollywood or Las Vegas or a porn theater in Times Square, and tell his disciples that his church was going to be built there, and Satan’s smut would not overcome it. That remains a strong message to the church today about our need to impact our culture.

If that was a little intimidating for those disciples, Jesus’ next stop was just north of this rock, to a much bigger one: Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in Israel. There, before his three most intimate disciples, Jesus was transfigured into his glorified body. Moses & Elijah showed up, representing the Old Testament (Law & Prophets) and talking about Jesus’ atoning death. And God the Father himself declared (as he had done at Jesus’ baptism) that Jesus was indeed his Son and Messiah.

Mt HermonFrom this amazing illustration of Jesus in all his heavenly power and glory, it would be all downhill from here — figuratively and literally! The next stop was Jerusalem and the cross, which the disciples could now face, armed with a confession and an image of a glorious Lord!

Fishing in the Sea of Galilee

by Pastor Ed Visser

[Peter & Andrew] were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” Matt 4:18-19

Did you ever wonder what Jesus’ disciples thought about when he called them to become ‘fishers of men?’ Today we might think in terms of rods & reels, hooks & bait. We might preach that we need to ‘lure’ people in and ‘hook’ them with the Gospel. We might visualize it as a one-on-one, individualistic task, perhaps even done in our leisure time (since fishing is a leisure time activity for most people). But a trip back to the first century and the land of Israel gives us a little different picture.

Casting Net

Fishing was hard work in Jesus’ day, not a leisurely activity. The task was done not through line-fishing but net-fishing. And while you could cast an individual net like the one above (just offshore at Tiberias), most net-fishing was done in teams. The seine net, used close to shore (Matt 13:47-50), and the trammel net, used with boats in the open water (John 21), involved great teamwork. Fishing on the Sea of Galilee involved much strain, long hours and often little results from one’s labor. Add to that the idea that the sea was considered the Abyss, the abode of Satan, and largely to be avoided, and you get the picture that fishing held different connotations than it does today.

When we think about being ‘fishers of men,’ we should think in terms of a call to teamwork among believers, each playing our own roles and contributing our own gifts. It promises not to be leisurely or showy, but hard, often unrewarding, work to “snatch” people from Satan’s hold on them. Nor can we be fussy or judgmental about who responds. In Matthew 13:47-50, Jesus tells us that both good and bad fish will be netted for the kingdom; his angels (not us!) will be charged with separating the two at the end of the age.

Decapolis: The Other Side

by Pastor Ed Visser

When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him.… The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.” He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. – Matthew 8:28, 31-32

Beit SheanOne of the places we visited around the Sea of Galilee was an area known in Jesus’ day as the Decapolis. Today part of Israel, this area on the east side of the Sea was, in the first century, a Roman league of ten cities (Decapolis = ‘ten cities’). Greek, and later Roman, soldiers were given property there as a reward for service.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Jesus makes several visits to what the Jews called “the other side.” On one of his visits, he encounters one (Mark & Luke) or two (Matthew) demon-possessed men. What must have been a terrifying scene for his disciples becomes almost comical in the gospels, as he commands the demons out of the man and into a herd of pigs. The pigs promptly run down an embankment (there are no steep cliffs there) and drown themselves in the Sea. The fact that this is a Gentile territory explains the presence of pigs, which you wouldn’t find in Israel. They may have even been the sacred animals of the Roman temples in this area. That the demons send the pigs into the sea is fitting, since it was considered to be the abode of Satan — they were going home!

Beit Shean TheaterAnother event that happens in the Decapolis was the feeding of the 4000, not to be confused with the feeding of the 5000. Mark sets up a deliberate comparison between the two miracles which only makes sense if you know where they took place. When Jesus fed the 5000 (Mark 6), he was in Israel. Afterwards, the disciples picked up 12 baskets of leftovers, a significant number reminding Jews of the 12 tribes of Israel, as if Jesus was saying, “I am the bread of life, sufficient for all Israel.” When he repeats the miracle for 4000 (Mark 8), he is in the Decapolis. Afterwards, the disciples pick up 7 basketfuls. When the Israelites first came into the land, they drove out 7 Gentile nations, many of them in this general area. So Jesus seems to be saying, “I am the bread of life, also sufficient for all the Gentiles.”

Paying attention to where Jesus was in his daily encounters with people can shed brighter light on his message.